February 7, 2021
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
From time to time it is imperative that Christians return to the foundations of their faith, those few great facts upon which the Bible rests its understanding of reality and supremely its proclamation of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. Such revisiting of the essentials or fundamentals of our faith is important both to maintain our confidence in the truth of what we believe and to ensure that our daily thought and life is securely connected to that truth, flows from it, and is empowered by it.
If we fail often to revisit these facts that explain and empower our life, we will fall prey to our terrible capacity to take even the greatest possible things for granted and to allow ourselves to live without much direct connection to the truth that sets us free. We may believe it all and confess it all, if asked; but taking it all for granted allows us to concentrate on the largely irrelevant aspects of life at the expense of what actually matters for both time and eternity. It is for this reason that real Christians so often think and speak and live without regard to the eternal weal or woe of themselves or those around them, ignoring even their own soon-coming appearance before the judgment seat of God.
Tonight I will revisit one such fundamental tenet of our faith, viz. the sinfulness of every human being: his or her comprehensively defiling moral defect and the guilt or the liability to God’s punishment that results from that sin. I don’t have a single text this evening. I’ll simply repeat to you a few of the many well-known statements of this fact we find throughout Holy Scripture.
From the beginning of the Bible:
1. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Gen. 6:8
From the middle of the Bible:
1. In Solomon’s prayer of dedication upon the completion of the temple, we have this obiter dictum, or passing comment. “If they sin against you – for there is no one who does not sin – (1 Kgs 8:46)
2. Or this from Isaiah: “…your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.” 59:2
And from the New Testament:
1. In announcing the conception of Jesus the angel told Joseph, “he will save his people from their sins.” Matt. 1:21
2. In laying the foundation of his exposition of the way of salvation, Paul says such things as these:
a. “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” Rom. 3:23
b. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 6:23
3. And he defines the good news this way: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.” 1 Cor. 15:3
Here too, Paul and James are in complete agreement. As the brother of the Lord put it in his letter to Christians: “We all stumble in many ways.” The many squabbles between us derive, he said, from the sinful desires within us. And sums it all up by saying that anyone who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it is sinning. (4:1, 17) That is precisely what Paul said was the bane of his existence as a Christian man, even as an apostle of Jesus Christ. What he knew was right he so often did not do and what he knew was wrong, far too often he did. (Rom. 7:14-25)
As a result of this sinfulness, this universal and perpetual moral failure of human beings, the honest, heartfelt acknowledgement of one’s sinfulness becomes the essential insight, attitude, and action of human beings. As the tax collector in the Lord’s parable, everyone should say, and feel a great need to say, and not once but day after day, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” The Bible everywhere takes it for granted that we are sinners, profoundly, relentlessly, inexcusably sinners. If we do not understand this, we will not understand the Bible and if we do not accept that this is the truth about us, the Bible will forever remain uninteresting, irrelevant to us. For the Bible is all about what God has done and is doing to save us from our sins.
No other religion or philosophy of life makes so much of human sin and so only Christianity describes and explains the world as it is; only our faith accurately defines the human predicament; and only Christianity, therefore, can fairly claim to explain how that problem, deep and intractable as it is, could possibly be solved. The ancient religions did not face the fact of human sin in any serious way. And no modern philosophy grasps this nettle either; none even makes a serious attempt. But the sinfulness of every human being, save one, is asserted countless times in the Bible and illustrated just as often. What is more we observe the truth of this every day all day. The nature of sin, its ugliness, destructiveness, and pathetic disgrace is also one of the Bible’s principal themes from beginning to end.
This fact is fundamental to our faith because without it the entire edifice must fall. It explains the misery of human life, why it falls so far short of what we all know it ought to be and long for it to be. More than this, our sin is the reason for the greatest events in human history: the incarnation, suffering, death, and resurrection of the Son of God. Nothing less than this stupendous invasion of human history by God himself would suffice to deliver us from the guilt and corrupting power of our sin. And so the fact of our sin is the essential presupposition of the wonder of God’s love for us and of his salvation and the hope of heaven.
Even in this world, while Christians only begin, we might well think only barely begin to surmount their sins, it is the prospect of perfect goodness that draws us toward the world to come. Not a paradise with many virgins, heaven for us is first and foremost a place without sin and, therefore, of a far greater experience of the love and presence of God and of one another. Just as you cannot have the Christian faith without the Bible’s doctrine of the triune God or of creation, so you cannot have the Christian faith without its doctrine of sin. Depressing as the fact of human iniquity may be, the confession of it is the first step both to the knowledge of reality and a sinless future.
I might not have thought to consider this subject except for all that has been going on in our country and the Christian church over the past year. I have long remembered a remark of C.S. Lewis in his immortal address entitled The Weight of Glory, first published during the darkest days of World War II.
“What does war do to death? It certainly doesn’t make it more frequent: 100 per cent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased…. Does it increase our chances of painful death? I doubt it….”
His point was that death is such a fact of life that even when it is concentrated, as in wartime, even when we are forced to feel the terrible impact of it as we do in time of war, the reality is the same in times of peace, prosperity, and long life. Everyone is going to die; however they die, whenever they die.
Well, in the same way, Covid and American politics haven’t increased the prevalence of human sin. People were selfish, small-minded, proud, arrogant, dishonest, petty, indifferent to others, easily angered, hypocritical and self-confident blowhards before Covid and the recent presidential campaign. But our recent relentless experience of both should certainly concentrate our attention on the darkness that dwells in the human heart and the mindless stupidity, dishonesty, and cruelty of so much human thought and action. Indeed, over the past year we have been treated to a paroxysm of pointless recrimination, impatience, pompous self-assertion, and despicable selfishness. And that on all sides by virtually everyone, including ourselves!
All of this – the very antithesis of love (and what is sin but the repudiation of love) – has been magnified and then projected in living color on the vast screen of our media-driven world. We have seen anew and afresh what human beings are; what they have always been and what they will be until the end of history: selfish and cruel, small-minded and dishonest, with pride peeping out of every part of them. Who has been careful to love his or her neighbor through it all? Who has been scrupulously honest, patient, understanding, compassionate; who has always thought of others before opening his or her big mouth? And supremely, who has been humble, as all sinners surely ought to be? After all of this, tell me who thinks the world is getting better by the day?
As the Bible reminds us repeatedly, this moral failure, so universal in the world, remains the sad fact of Christian life as well. Our guilt may have been annihilated at the cross and our corruption of heart may have been overcome in principle in the new birth and may be now made subject in increasing measure to the activity of the Holy Spirit, but still we are sinners, even, as the Apostle Paul dared to say of himself, still bond-slaves to sin. Freedom from sin is the promise of the world to come; not of this world, even for the most devout of Christians. And this is not only the teaching of the Bible but the confession of devout believers throughout the ages. Is there any greater burden we bear in this life than our own stupid, selfish selves? How little we love God; how little we love others!
But in our permissive, therapeutic culture, it is harder and harder for us to take this as seriously as the Bible teaches us to do. In our time the notion of sin as disobedience to God, as an affront to his will, as the disgraceful repudiation of what we all know to be right and good, has been overturned. Oh, people will still confess that they are not perfect – not perfect? you have got to be kidding; we are 100,000 miles from being perfect! – but nothing any longer is sin in that deep and powerful biblical sense. Many sins have actually been made virtues in our time and many others are now excused if not entirely ignored. True it is, human beings, made in the image of a holy God, cannot escape their moral nature. They still make moral judgments, often engage in ferocious condemnation of the behavior of others, but of their own sin they think very little and God is no longer part of their thinking. For that reason even racism and sexual abuse are no longer sins in the biblical sense, violations of God’s law for which human beings must expect an accounting, for which they may expect to face God’s anger and retribution. Our misbehavior is certainly not so serious that only the suffering and death of the Son of God could possibly overcome its consequences. Indeed, the biblical sense of sin has become simply incomprehensible to most Americans today. The word itself – sin – has disappeared from our public discourse. It has been scrubbed, erased from the language of polite conversation; a relic of a bygone and largely forgotten age.
What does the Almighty think of our behavior: our thoughts, attitudes, actions, and judgments regarding Covid and the election? That is the question! Who cares what you and I think about masks or social distancing; one way or the other? Why are your opinions so important to you and mine to me? What difference does what you posted on social media make? It will be forgotten soon enough, though the resentments we caused may last longer. But whether we failed to love our neighbor and those we supposed our enemies as ourselves, whether we acted in humility, whether we were careful, scrupulously careful to speak only what we knew to be the truth and spoke in love; whether will be judged as we have judged: all of that matters very much; and someday that will be all that matters to you and me. That is the all-encompassing reality of human sin in God’s world! And that is our difficulty in remembering that fact!
It should be highly interesting to us that this understanding of the human condition, this universal moral failure, used to be much more seriously considered and widely shared, by thoughtful believers and unbelievers alike. After all, as G.K. Chesterton once observed, the Christian doctrine of original sin is the only Christian doctrine for which there is overwhelming empirical evidence! I’m embarrassed to say that only a few weeks ago I began to read Ron Chernow’s magisterial biography of Alexander Hamilton. It was first published in 2004. This is the book that inspired the now celebrated Broadway musical, Hamilton. And what a great book it is.
For Alexander Hamilton, the architect of American government, chief among his fundamental principles was the recognition of the sinfulness of human beings. He knew they could not be relied on to do the right thing. His insistence on checks and balances in government was due to his lack of confidence in the good impulses or wisdom or public-spiritedness of people, left to themselves. He thought government should be constructed to restrain the selfish and foolish tendencies of the human heart. I was arrested by this observation of Chernow regarding Hamilton and James Madison, the two authors of The Federalist Papers, the political manifesto that lay beneath our national constitution at the time of its adoption. “The two shared a grim vision of the human condition, even if Hamilton’s had the blacker tinge.”  Or, as Hamilton was to write in recommending the new constitution, “Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?”  They had no romantic notions of utopia; that democracy would purify human nature. Indeed, neither founding father supposed that democracy could survive, much less prosper if it depended upon the supposedly innate goodness of the human heart. They knew better than to lean on that broken reed. The masses were just as capable of tyranny as any king. Sad to say, but as we should expect, both Madison and Hamilton demonstrated the moral frailty of human beings in their own conduct only too well, both in their private and their public conduct.
But that is nothing compared to this. If you are yet unconvinced of the moral problem that afflicts every human being, listen to this observation by another American sage, in this case, far less sympathetic to Christianity and the Bible than Alexander Hamilton.
“What a wee little part of a person’s life are his acts and his words! His real life is led in his head and is known to none but himself. All day long, and every day, the mill of his brain is grinding, and his thoughts (which are but the mute articulation of his feelings) not [his actions], are his history. His acts and his words are merely the visible thin crust of his world, with its scattered snow summits and its vacant wastes of water – and they are so trifling a part of his bulk! A mere skin enveloping it. The mass of him is hidden – it and its volcanic fires that toss and boil, and never rest, night or day. These are his life, and they are not written, and cannot be written. Every day would make a whole book of eighty thousand words – three hundred and sixty-five days a year. Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man – the biography of the man himself cannot be written.” (That is Mark Twain in his Autobiography [Vol. I (2010) 220])
Mark Twain knew the truth that hardly anyone faces, including far too many Christians, in our time. But, of course, we know, every human being knows only too well what happens inside our heads, what thoughts and feelings, what words and virtual deeds are found there. How carefully we hide that world from others. How catastrophic to our reputation it would be for others to be able to listen in on the thoughts of our hearts! Everyone knows this, however little he or she may think of it or reckon with it. As the Bible reminds us repeatedly, the sinful man supposes that “God doesn’t see.” That God “will never call me to account.” [Ps. 10:11, 13] or worse, and probably far more often, as David put it in Psalm 36: “For in his own eyes he flatters himself too much to detect or hate his sin.” But, of course, God does see. He knows our thoughts. He looks upon our hearts. It is not only true that out of the heart flow the issues of life but that in the Great Judgment there is nothing covered that will not be revealed or hidden that will not be known (Matt. 10:22; Luke 12:2).
This inner life, this is where we are most ourselves, but it is also where we are undoubtedly the most sinful and selfish and proud, and our determination to keep that world secret from everyone else is the proof of that, if proof were needed! The vindictiveness, the pettiness, the lust, the greed, the utter indifference to the welfare of others, the indifference to God himself, and all the rest. It is all there, every day, all day. It is this recognition, that we are what we are inside, that we are what our thoughts and attitudes make us, together with the undeniable fact that our inner life would humiliate us beyond measure were it to be revealed to the world, that has prompted even the most saintly of men to confess the shame of their inner life. William Law famously said he would rather be killed and his body thrown into a swamp than for anyone to be allowed to see his inner side. And Samuel Rutherford, famous among us for his great love for the Lord Jesus, admitted that if people only knew what went on in his head, no one in Scotland would care to know how he was doing. And is there anyone listening to me who does not know precisely what these men meant?
One of the classic works on sin, the nature and consequences of sin, was Ralph Venning’s The Plague of Plagues, published in 1669. It was published four years after what is called the Great Plague of London. In 1665 the bubonic plague killed upwards of one quarter of the city’s population. The title, of course, suggests that terrible as the bubonic plague was, it wasn’t nearly as deadly as the virus of sin, something very few in our land have given a thought to in the days of Covid. Sin blinds a person from his or her real danger and then condemns them to eternal death. Covid is nothing like the bubonic plague in its effects, but both of them are a bagatelle compared to sin. And so are all the problems that dominate our politics. We are so easily distracted by the lesser danger, so much so that we scarcely give a thought to our real peril.
Covid certainly hasn’t inflamed our passion for God’s forgiveness, though his forgiveness is everything in the Bible, absolutely everything! Covid has preoccupied us with the conquest of one particular, disease leaving very few to consider how an infinitely more deadly disease that has been with us since the beginning of history is to be conquered. Even the church seems to care less and less about this vital question.
The Church has always struggled to maintain a living, powerful, and ever-present conscience regarding our sin – it is contrary to human pride and, in any case, we prefer the happier rather than the more gloomy side of our faith. But in its modern form, the Christian disinterest in sin gained momentum in the later years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th. Alexander Whyte was nearing the end of a nearly 50-year ministry in Edinburgh when he had to face the fact that his preaching wasn’t as popular as it once was. He had always emphasized our sin as the backdrop of God’s grace and was famous for his brilliant and powerful exposure of our sin and sins. People for years had come away from his sermons convinced that they really were great sinners. But his modern congregation of middle class and upper-class Scots had grown tired of this. The industrial revolution with its technological advancements, the increasing wealth and comfort enjoyed by his people, had created a desire to be pampered rather than have their minister dwell on their faults and their need for God’s forgiveness.
It was the summer of 1907 and on his vacation Dr. Whyte was wrestling with this very question: should he continue his preaching in the same vein or should he change to suit the times and make a point of preaching much more on the gentler and hopeful aspects of Christian truth. Upon his return to his congregation he told them what had happened on one of his walks.
“…what seemed to me to be a Divine Voice spoke with all-commanding power in my conscience, and said to me as clear as clear could be: ‘No! Go on, and flinch not! Go back and boldly finish the work that has been given you to do. Speak out and fear not. Make them at any cost to see themselves in God’s holy law as in a glass. Do you that, for no one else will do it. No one well else will so risk his life and his reputation as to do it. And you have not much of either left to risk. Go home and spend what is left of your life in your appointed task of showing My people their sin and their need of My salvation.’ I shall never forget the exact spot where that clear command came to me, and where I got fresh authority and fresh encouragement to finish this part of my work.” [Barbour, Life of A.W., 532]
The sermon was not greeted with uniform pleasure. One member of the congregation wrote of this “powerful but gloomy sermon on Original Sin,” and another said, “My heart sank as I listened to these words.” True enough there were others who were deeply grateful. One wrote that very night to her minister thanking him for a sermon that met her most urgent need and that no one else could have given.
And why? Why must he go on preaching sin when people were disgusted with the subject? And why must we hear this message today when we would rather hear about so many other things than our own badness and failure? Because here lies the foundation of everything that is good, truly good, indeed wonderful in a man or woman’s life. So much that is splendid and wonderful that cannot, that will not rest on any other foundation! It is only when we are convinced and convicted of our sin, of our desperately bad hearts and our comprehensive moral failure – so often our nearly complete lack of love for God and for our neighbor – that it becomes possible and that we are inspired and moved to every good thing in life. After all, what should Christians be?
1. Well we should be grateful, and what is more likely to make us grateful and to live with hearts full of thanksgiving than to carry about with us a sense of the love of God lavished on us in spite of our ill-desert, a sense of how great Christ and salvation must be to have delivered people such as we are from sin as great as ours! Everywhere in the Bible it is gratitude that inspires the happiest parts of the Christian life. The Heidelberg Catechism entitles its third section, the section on the Christian life, with that single word, Gratitude.
2. We should be humble. We know how beautiful real humility is. We have often wished we were more humble because we know very well how ugly our pride is. And what will humble us more than a living sense of how inexcusably bad we are when left to ourselves. The Devil himself would be humble if he had a past like yours and mine and would only honestly review that past from time to time! In a world so proud, among people who are always looking down on others, people such as ourselves, who know the extent of their sin, people such as you and I, should never under any circumstances, look down on anyone, no matter who he is or what she has done. That would be true humility!
3. We should be holy. And will anything inspire the hard work, the sacrifice, the self-denial, the prayer, the obedience that holiness requires more powerfully than a living awareness of how great God’s love must be to have made such terrible sacrifices for sinners such as we are. The first business of your life as a follower of Jesus Christ – who died to rid you of your sins – is killing your sins in the power of his name. Till your last breath this is your first calling. This is what makes you most valuable to God and to others.
In other words, a living sense of our sin, an active recognition of its invariable presence and power in our lives produces the most wonderful things in any person’s life, things nothing else can produce. As Samuel Rutherford wrote to one of his correspondents: “I find you complaining of yourself, and it becometh a sinner so to do. I am not against you in that. The more sense, the more life. The more sense of sin, the less sin.” [CVI] A living sense of our sin has everything to do with how seriously a Christian takes his or her Christian faith and Christian life! Let me finish with this, again a moment in the life of Alexander Whyte. It is a recollection of his associate in the pastorate of Free St. George’s.
“On one occasion, when a prominent citizen had been imprisoned, and the whole city was aghast at the scandal, as Dr. Whyte came into the vestry on Sunday morning the bells were ringing for church. He turned to me and said: ‘Do you hear those bells? He hears them in his prison cell this morning. Man, it might have been me!”
If you are a Christian, a genuine follower of Jesus Christ, if, therefore, you desire to be all that you should be and can be for Christ and his kingdom, that mind, that spirit, that honesty, that humility – to think to say such a thing and to say it from the heart, “Man it might have been me!” – is the foundation of everything you want to be and everything you ought to be. And facing your sin is the only way to become like that! Amen.
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